Seven battlegrounds for the future of global power politics

Climate, culture and health among areas of rivalry identified by foreign policy experts

Military and technological might, including in space, are among the predicted battlegrounds of great power rivalries. AFP
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Solar power, medical supplies and blockbuster films will be among the coveted symbols of power in the future of global politics, experts have said.

Analysts said climate, health and culture were among seven key battlegrounds on which countries would fight for power and influence.

The others were named by a European Council on Foreign Relations report as economics, military, people and technology.

“Power in the 21st century is not just about control of land and seas but about who controls flows of money, people, goods, data and ideas,” said ECFR director Mark Leonard.

He said rival powers were playing to different strengths, with the US still the premier military and economic power, but China challenging its technological dominance – and India emerging as a large cultural player.

“India is a big player on several terrains – as a demographic superpower with a large diaspora, as a cultural player with a huge film industry, and as a medical superpower with its enormous capacity to manufacture vaccines,” he said.


ECFR analyst Jonathan Hackenbroich said tools such as sanctions, tariffs and control of market access had replaced military might as the main geopolitical weapons used by great powers.

This makes the EU a significant power-broker because it controls the gateway to its single market, attaching political conditions to entry such as democratic values and climate action, he said.

Meanwhile, China is striving to eat away at US economic dominance with a digital currency and heavily subsidised companies, although the US dollar is still a potent political tool.


Another pair of analysts, Alex Clark and Susi Dennison, said the fight against climate change was altering the balance of power between countries as they face increasing pressure to go green.

Nations rich in solar energy potential, such as Middle East countries, Mexico and South Africa, could use this to increase their bargaining power compared to other global players, the experts said.

Meanwhile, rare earth metals possessed by India, Australia and Brazil among others could become a similarly lucrative market.


Two experts at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Fiona Adamson and Kelly Greenhill, said control of migration and borders gave some countries a competitive edge.

They highlighted how Turkey had used its position as a guardian of the EU’s borders to get an aid package and political concessions.

Another example of this was Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko is suspected of ferrying migrants to the EU’s eastern border to cause political headaches for the bloc.


A chapter on culture written by Mr Leonard and Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, said a more diverse film industry was a symbol of declining western dominance.

Indian cinema and South Korean music tapped into a desire to challenge western cultural hegemony, they said, coming alongside a broader “ethos of decolonisation”.

China would be well advised not to hold its own model up as a global alternative, but signal that it would allow client countries to preserve their own cultures, they wrote.

This image released by Neon shows Woo-sik Choi, from left, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang and So-dam Park in a scene from "Parasite." Nominations to the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, Jan. 13. (Neon via AP)


Health became a battleground during the coronavirus pandemic, as the global tug-of-war over vaccines and equipment turned into a quest for political victories, said policy fellow Anthony Dworkin.

“The pandemic made clear how countries could exploit the production and distribution of medical goods to gain extraordinary power,” he said.

Democracies did not perform conspicuously better than other regimes during the pandemic, analysts said – weakening the West’s claims to ideological superiority.


Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the ECFR in Madrid, said the US and China had fully embraced tech diplomacy by seeking to control the world’s digital infrastructure.

The power struggle has led to fears of a so-called “splinternet” in which the world would divide into different digital spheres.

The EU is behind in this field because it is reliant on imports for batteries, fuel cells and digital services, Mr Torreblanca said.


Policy expert Ulrike Franke said military power was hard to measure, although Washington is still by far the number one in terms of arms spending.

Emerging issues such as drones and cyber warfare had shifted the balance of power, she said, with the EU concerned it is falling behind on technology.

In space, the US, Russia and China are by far the dominant players in terms of number of satellites in orbit.

Updated: December 09, 2021, 3:03 PM